By NICK LECO
July 30, 2008
Up to this point, I have, for the most part, avoided the performance-enhancing drug issue and its impact on the National Baseball Hall of Fame. With little precedent to go on, it is immensely difficult to gauge how history - and more specifically, Hall of Fame voters - will judge baseball stars suspected of being drug cheats. So far, I have focused on players whose Hall of Fame credentials are largely accepted in terms of black and white, with little gray area. However, there is no doubt that steroid use has played a major role in baseball over the past two-plus decades, and thus must be recognized as a factor when evaluating the Hall of Fame worthiness of many current and former players. This week we will take a look at the Hall of Fame credentials of Mark McGwire, whose name has been linked to performance-enhancing drugs for several years and who, as a result, stands as one of the most controversial figures the Hall debate has ever seen.
MARK McGWIRE -
At Bats: 6,187
Home Runs: 583
Teams: Athletics (1986-1997), Cardinals (1997-2001)
“Big Mac” was considered the premier power hitter of his time and, during his playing career, drew some comparisons to Babe Ruth because of his unprecedented home run hitting ability. McGwire’s at bat-to-home run ratio of 10.91 is the lowest ever, bettering even the immortal Bambino, who is second at 11.76. McGwire exploded on the scene in 1987, slugging a rookie-record 49 home runs en route to American League Rookie of the Year honors. Over the next three years, he hit 32, 33 and 39 home runs respectively, becoming the first player to hit more than 30 homers in each of his first four big league seasons.
McGwire teamed with Jose Canseco - the slugging duo was famously dubbed the “Bash Brothers” - to form one of the best power hitting tandems in baseball during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Under the tutelage of manager Tony LaRussa and with help from ace starters Dave Stewart and Bob Welch, Hall of Fame reliever Dennis Eckersley and others, they led the Athletics to three straight World Series appearances in 1988 to 1990. The lost to the Dodgers in 1988 and the Reds in 1990, but defeated the Giants in the earthquake-interrupted World Series of 1989.
In the summer of 1998, McGwire - by this time, a member of the Cardinals - and Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa captured the nation’s attention by embarking on a memorable chase for Roger Maris‘ storied record of 61 home runs in a single season. McGwire smashed the old record with 70 homers, while Sosa also bested Maris’ mark with 66. It was said at the time that the chase saved baseball, which was still reeling from the players’ strike and resulting World Series cancellation of 1994. McGwire’s home run prowess during the four-year stretch from 1996 to 1999 was unmatched in the game’s history, as he hit an amazing 245 longballs while topping 50 four times and 60 twice.
McGwire was named to 12 All-Star teams during his career and won a largely forgotten Gold Glove at first base in 1990 despite being considered to have mobility issues. His 583 career home runs rank eighth all-time and he currently ranks ninth and 11th all-time respectively in slugging percentage and OPS (on-base plus slugging). McGwire received MVP votes in 10 seasons and finished in the top 10 in MVP voting five times.
Despite all the performance-enhancing drug talk surrounding McGwire, he has never admitted to using steroids, nor has there been any solid incriminating evidence liking him to steroid use. The Mitchell Report - the 2007 investigation by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell into illegal steroid use in Major League Baseball - named 89 current and former players who were allegedly involved in steroid use, and McGwire’s was not among the names mentioned in the report.
“I’m not here to talk about the past.”
Those now-famous words spoken by McGwire at a congressional hearing for reform radically changed public opinion of him and led many to believe he took performance-enhancing drugs. His refusal to directly answer questions about his alleged steroid use that day was taken as an admission of guilt by fans, the media, and most importantly for this column, Hall of Fame voters.
In his first year of eligibility, McGwire received only 23.5 percent of the vote as many used their non-votes to protest his unwillingness to address the steroid issue. Many believe that, unlike other suspected steroid users such as Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds, McGwire would never have put up Hall of Fame caliber numbers without the aid of performance-enhancing drugs. They point the fact that, other than his 583 career homers - a total, some believe, that was inflated by steroid use - there is not much in McGwire’s resume to warrant induction into the Hall of Fame.
McGwire’s career .263 average is not Hall of Fame-caliber and 1,626 career hits is a paltry number for a player that played 16 big league seasons. In 1991, during the prime of his career, McGwire batted only .201 and was even benched on the last day of the season to avoid the embarrassing prospect of finishing the season below the Mendoza line. It seemed his career was over after he played in only 74 games over the next two years, before he curiously rediscovered his power stroke in the late ‘90s.
Though McGwire was a key member of the Oakland team that won the World Series in 1989, his overall postseason numbers are subpar. In 129 at bats over 42 games, he batted only .217 with five home runs, and his on-base percentage of .320 was more than 70 points below his career avergage. Despite his eye-popping home run totals, McGwire never won an MVP award, finishing second to Sosa even in the year in which he hit a then-record 70 home runs.
Fair or not, McGwire is viewed by many as a one-dimensional player who hit home runs and did little else. Though he did win a Gold Glove, injuries cost him any shot at maintaining his reputation as an above-average defensive player thereafter. His 12 stolen bases, six triples and surprisingly few doubles (242) illustrate just how limited McGwire’s speed and mobility were.
As long as McGwire refuses to address his alleged steroid use, he will never get into the Hall of Fame. Fans and voters alike are still angry at McGwire for putting them through the farce that was the 1998 home run chase. Barring a teary public apology, the doors of Cooperstown will remain closed to McGwire. There is no doubt in my mind that McGwire would not have put up Hall of Fame-caliber numbers without the aid of performance-enhancing drugs, and thus far he has not done or said anything to make people believe he didn’t use them. McGwire may have hit home runs at a record pace, but little else on his resume suggests he deserves to be enshrined in Cooperstown. For now and through the foreseeable future, his worthiness for induction will continue to be a subject for heated debate. The X-factor is whether McGwire will ever sufficiently address voters’ concerns about his alleged steroid use to allow them to include - or exclude - him with a clear conscience.
Nick Leco’s Cooperstown Bound? column runs every Wednesday here on National Pastime.
Photo by Getty Images
Be sure to check out our previous Cooperstown Bound? columns: Roberto Alomar, Jack Morris, Omar Vizquel, Don Mattingly, Curt Schilling, Andre Dawson, Kenny Lofton, Fred McGriff, Alan Trammell.